We are all prone to experiencing considerable levels of stress on a daily basis, as we try to cope with prevailing threats such as the rise of right-wing populism and climate change, together with more personal challenges and pressures amplified by social media. Mindfulness meditation is generally regarded as a helpful strategy for maintaining desirable levels of calm and well-being. But not everyone agrees.
Ron Purser, professor of management at San Francisco State University has created a bit of a stir with his book McMindfulness (2019). He states that, “Instead of changing the world, mindfulness has become a banal form of capitalist spirituality that mindlessly avoids social and political transformation, reinforcing the neoliberal status quo.” I agree with him that focusing on personal well-being without considering systemic conditions could be a questionable strategy for resolving the problems of suffering. A metaphor comes in handy here: pulling drowning bodies out of a river may seem like a noble and compassionate quest, but would it not be as, or more useful to ask the question: “How come so many people are drowning?”
There are different levels from which this crucial question can be considered, and the socio-political perspective is one of them. It would be wonderful if more people could lead their lives in more self-determined ways, with better working conditions, more free time, access to better education and more meaningful leisure activities, and so on. But in my opinion, at the root of the question “How come so many people are drowning?” lies a deeper, existential enquiry related to our values and how conscious we are of them. We can’t just blame capitalism when we don’t know what we really want and are easily drawn into addictive and mind-numbing ways of spending our time that don’t bring greater happiness, or actually increase our suffering.
Together with a growing number of other “secular” mindfulness teachers, I incorporate working with values as an integral part of my courses and retreats (without presenting them as articles of religious belief). In my experience, this reduces the likelihood of falling into the pitfalls of quietism, or, indeed into the pitfalls of black and white thinking about this issue. An “either/or” way of thinking doesn’t serve us in these critical times; it is not about either blissing out on the meditation cushion or saving the world; it has to be both. One of the meanings of mindfulness, next to “being present in the moment” is to “remember our purpose;” to recall what we set out to do, or which qualities to embody.
Why do we meditate? For me, and many others I have heard answer this question, it is not just about personal peace and happiness, but about contributing to the welfare of others too. We gain so much ourselves from being in the presence of contented people who thrive in their places of work and in their relationships; who are fulfilled enough in themselves to be able to really listen to what others need. So does it not make sense to do our best to add to others’ happiness and create the conditions for it? Bringing to mind our interconnectedness with life at the beginning of a period of meditation practice means our highest intentions are present in the same way that breath is present’.* Like for Jack Petranker, each time I sit down and reflect on my motivation for meditating, the momentum that fuels social change will be there too.* It is present now, as I write this passage, and it is present when I prepare for a Work that Reconnects workshop for Extinction Rebellion activists to help them avoid burnout. Without my regular morning meditation, I believe this work would be far less effective—I would be more prone to feelings of overwhelm and despair, and less able to maintain compassionate awareness in the face of suffering.
There is another pertinent question when it comes to looking at mindfulness in relation to social change: What kind of meditation helps us make the bridge from “self” to “the world” seemingly “out there”? When we breathe mindfully, we can reflect on sharing the breath with other living organisms. But we probably have to remember to bring that perspective to the meditation, unless the insight of interconnectedness pervades our experience most of the time already. Whereas the very essence of loving-kindness practices is to open our hearts to all life, including ourselves.
I would like to introduce you to a simple and easily accessible loving-kindness meditation that starts with gratitude. Thinking of something positive that happened to us opens the gates of energy flowing from and toward us, bringing us into connection with the world. Gratitude is an easily available way of tangibly shifting mental states toward more positivity, thus creating confidence in the possibility of change. It is hard to think of counter indications, except perhaps a reaction to an overly moralistic stance: “you should be grateful!” that would deny or minimize an actual painful experience. As with any other meditation, acceptance of what we feel is a necessary foundation.
The orientation toward positive states (and acceptance is one of them) is the essence of loving-kindness practice. It can be useful to think of it as having less of a “doing” than a “being” tone. Trying too hard at wishing ourselves or others well can often be experienced as counterproductive, leading to tension, a feeling of inauthenticity, and self-blame, if it “doesn’t work.” Rather, we can cultivate the subtle art of recognizing the states of calm, contentment, and joy that are already there (perhaps as a result of recalling something we feel grateful for), and letting the experience linger in body/mind awareness. The prolonged somatic experience of a positive feeling, for at least 20–30 seconds** is what changes the brain chemistry and creates new neuron pathways. Becoming more familiar with the expansive way of being that follows our attunement with important values makes it more likely that we can access these states when we really need to, in the heat of challenging situations and when important decisions have to be made.
In the following meditation we combine a general kindly inclination of the heart with the recognition of the specific needs and values in a given situation (needs refer to more immediate experience, whereas values have a more long-term relevance). This lends authenticity and imaginative, empathic acuity to the practice. I invite you to have a go at this now:
1. Connecting with your present experience with openness and acceptance. What is going on in body and mind?
2. Remembering things/people/events that inspire gratitude. For example, you might recall that your brother phoned you when you were ill.
3. Taking time to identify the needs and values that are met by these experiences. In this example, these may be: support, to matter, to feel loved and cared for.
4. Experiencing the beauty of these needs in the moment and wishing yourself the fullness of these qualities. You may repeat those words in a warm and gentle tone of voice: support, to matter, to feel loved. And listen to the impact of these words, perhaps as a felt sense in the body of warmth, glow, or tenderness. Let it suffuse your body/mind experience, breathing with it.
5. Bringing to mind other people and wishing/imagining their needs being met. Traditionally this could be a friend, followed by a neutral person, and someone you have difficulties with, and then broadening it out. Or you could do it more organically, homing in on whomever appears in your mind. Reflect on what’s important to them; if you know them personally, this could relate to their current life experience. For example, if they are stressed about the process of buying a house. You may initially wish them a speedy completion of the process, and then ask yourself what would that give them: states of mind such as ease, calm, safety, and so on. You could picture them looking relaxed and at ease. So you focus on universal needs and values rather than the strategies to meet those needs. With people you don’t know, universal needs such as safety, happiness, a sense of meaning and fulfillment are certain to hit the spot. Gently repeat those words and feel them resonate in your heart.
* Jack Petranker in an email exchange in the Mindfulness and Social Change Network.
** Take in the Good (Rick Hanson Ph.D)